As the year closes, I’ve found myself spending a lot of time talking with other writers about process. It seems that many of my peers are involved in first drafts the way that I am, and no matter how many books one has under her pen, it is always like starting over.
One of my favorite writers, Maryanne O’Hara, was kind enough to answer some questions for me on her process, her reading recommendations, and her advice for about-to-be-published novelists. I enjoyed this interview very much, especially because there is comfort in hearing respected writers discuss the struggles and challenges of the work. I hope you enjoy it, too.
- From suffocating small-town life, to anti-Semitism, to unrealized ambition, you tackle many challenging themes in CASCADE, yet the novel never feels overburdened. Did you plan all of the plot lines before you began the first draft, or did the issues arise during the writing process?
Oh, I wish I could plan out all my plotlines ahead of time! But until I develop the characters, until I discover who they are and what they want, I am feeling my way around in the dark. Once I see them, and have a (very) rough draft going, I begin to try to map out the story arcs, which is scary yet fun, and really makes me focus on what the heck I’m trying to do. I like stories that have a lot of layers; trying to weave them into a coherent and compelling narrative is a challenge I enjoy.
- Do you read a lot of fiction, or do you try to avoid it when writing your own? Who are some of your favorite writers?
I must say that when I am actively writing, I really cannot read anything less than stellar prose. I grew up loving the short stories of John Cheever, Alice Munro, and William Trevor, and so I often will read an “old-friend” favorite passage to get myself in the mood to write. I have so many favorite books that it is hard to choose, but I can say that for 2014 I would particularly recommend EUPHORIA, by my dear friend Lily King, which was just named one of the New York Times 5 best fiction titles of the year. Lily is incapable of writing anything but beautiful, wise prose, and she’s been a longtime inspiration to me. She has an amazing work ethic, much like yours, Erika! Another recent book that I deeply admired was WE ARE CALLED TO RISE, by Laura McBride. The kind of book that made me happy to be alive. Oh, and I loved NORAH WEBSTER, by one of my all-time favorite writers, Colm Toibin. Who just happened to grow up in Wexford, Ireland, where my husband grew up…
- CASCADE was the Boston Globe’s inaugural Book Club selection. Do you meet with book clubs in person or on Skype? What has surprised you about meeting with book clubs?
The Boston Globe Book Club was a wonderful surprise, a much-appreciated honor. The Globe hosted meet-ups throughout the summer and I was able to meet with so many new readers, which is my favorite part of publishing. I do indeed visit book clubs—in person when I can, and via Skype, which allows me to connect with readers far from home. One memorable Skype meetup involved the book club putting its computer on a lazy Susan, and spinning it around so I could talk to everyone.
The most surprising thing about meeting with book clubs? Contrary to all the talk about book clubs being an excuse for people to drink wine and chat, I have found that most clubs are very dear to their members. Thank God the world still is full of interesting people who love to discuss books!
- Can you reveal anything about your current work in progress?
It’s a book about storytelling and the elusive nature of memory. I’m still in the “figuring it out” stage.
- What advice do you have for a writer preparing for publication of his/her first novel?
First off, I would say congratulations, and do try to enjoy it! I recently looked back at my journal entries around the time I was finishing CASCADE and they were somber, realistic, anxious. I knew how hard it would be to secure an agent and publish a book. There’s a lot of elation when you get that contract, and a whole new set of emotional ups and downs. Research all the ways you can help yourself sell that book. And then, no matter how well or poorly things go after the launch, try to hold onto why you write in the first place, and keep writing.
Good advice! Thank you, Maryanne.
Book Clubs: Feel free to contact Maryanne to Skype!
Writers, did anything resonate with you? Are you a plotter or a “pantser”? What fabulous fiction would you recommend reading while writing?